Double Agents

In 1996 the Central Intelligence Agency, having taken many well-deserved
public-relations hits over the years, hired a full-time "entertainment liaison
officer"--a veteran paramilitary operative with the movie-hero name of Chase
Brandon. Until September 11, the strategy seemed to be paying off. The CIA was
set to star in three new network series: ABC's Alias would center on a
gorgeous, kickboxing grad student/secret agent who would give the agency's image
girl-power oomph. The Agency, on CBS, would offer a big, earnest salute to
American spies, inviting viewers to "step inside the secret world of the CIA."
And Fox's 24 would take an entire TV season to depict a single day in the
lives of a team of CIA agents trying to thwart an assassination attempt. The CIA
was very cooperative, allowing some filming in its Virginia headquarters,
providing agency seals for interior sets, even looking over a rough draft of the
CBS pilot. "The popular image of us is of some kind of rogue organization
creating mayhem and madness on a whim," Brandon complained to The Guardian
the week before the World Trade Center attacks. "We hate to see ugly imagery of
us in television and films." Wolfgang Peterson, one of the executive producers of
The Agency, added that post-Cold War Americans "are questioning whether we
need a CIA, and this is a great opportunity to get the word out."

Well, the word is certainly out now, but it is not quite the word that Brandon
and Peterson had in mind. From almost no television visibility, the CIA has moved
to possibly its highest visibility ever--the intentional image makeover taking
place on entertainment networks, and the unintended publicity in news programs.
On NBC's Meet the Press, Senator John McCain proposed a special
investigatory commission "so that we will not make the mistakes again that we
made before and can reorganize our intelligence services." The September 11
attacks pointed to "the inability of the CIA to do strategic intelligence, to do
long-term research, the inability to put people on the street undercover who
represent the CIA, who can deal with some of the unsavory aspects of terrorism
and proliferation and drugs that a real intelligence agency should be able to
do," a former CIA analyst argued on CNN. "It was just a cascading series of
intelligence failures that led to the attack," the former vice chair of the
National Intelligence Council said on CNBC. "It's basically a defensive

On television, there are now two Central Intelligence Agencies. One is
Bondishly cool and world-saving, though coping with a few bad apples, and its
agents are heroic individuals with high-tech tools (stun darts, lipstick cameras,
purses with remote detonators) that they use--along with guns, undercover
ingenuity, and old-fashioned fisticuffs--to great effect. The other is bumbling,
complacent, and world-failing, and its agents are bureaucrats so distracted by
high-technology and interagency competition that they were unable to detect and
stop a low-tech combination of suicidal fervor, plane tickets, and box cutters.
It's a bit like watching soap-opera twins--the good one, then the bad one; the
dazzling one, then the plain one; the formidable one, then the clod.

Even though the trend is toward making programs about the agency more
realistic, there are, in fact, still writers and producers and directors who
don't want to be confused by the facts," Chase Brandon told The New York
back before the September attacks. "They'd rather live in their own
little creative make-believe world... . The real work that people do at the CIA
is eminently more intriguing than some nonsense that some screenwriter whips up
out of the muse of his imagination." The CIA's public-relations effort, in fact,
was based primarily on convincing viewers that shows like The
which Brandon praised for showing "the bravery and decency of the
men and women who work here"--bore a close resemblance to reality. But in the
aftermath of the terrorist attacks, that strategy is in trouble. For one thing,
viewers simply can't watch spy shows with the same eyes anymore. For another, at
least for the first couple of months after the attacks, much fictional
programming self-consciously retreated from certain realities--depictions of
terrorism and, sometimes, even just exploding things deemed "insensitive," in
"bad taste," or "not what audiences want"--and the distance between the CIA of
news programming and the CIA of entertainment shows widened.

The West Wing tipped its hat to new sensitivities by running a dull,
preachy special episode. Third Watch did so by interviewing New York City
firefighters and police officers and then, bucking the trend, building a
fictional story-line around the World Trade Center aftermath. But the CIA shows
were in a different bind. The new series 24, whose day-in-the-life story-
line revolves around foreigners plotting to kill a presidential candidate and
whose original pilot contained a riveting scene in which a terrorist blows up a
jumbo jet, was left with what Entertainment Weekly called "a season-long,
terrorist-filled headache." In the weeks leading up to the show's premiere in
early November, its executive producer insisted that he would not have to make
major changes in the series because 24 told "a heroic story about people
who are willing to make any sacrifice to maintain the central tenets of our
society" (a neat bit of post-9-11 spin). More likely, though, his headaches will
ultimately be reduced by 24's quality as movie-style entertainment--by the
show's distance from reality rather than its proximity to it. It has a movie
star, Kiefer Sutherland, playing the lead, a CIA agent named Jack Bauer; gimmicks
of real time and split screens that actually work; a parallel, personalizing plot
in which Jack's daughter goes missing; and the taut, driving feel of a good
mystery flick.

The Agency, the show that was most invested in claims to authenticity, has
had a harder time of it. It certainly has a lock on the patriotic. One agent
nails bad guys while still dealing with the death of his own brother, who had
also been CIA. Another, a computer-graphics whiz, is hired, her boss tells her,
because she has "passion, idealism, and discipline, all good qualities for a
workaday spook." The people at the top are no-nonsense, war-room types, who make
declarations like: "People think the world's changed, Jackson. Some even think
that this is an antiquated organization. But you and I know better." The music
is brassy and symphonic.

But The Agency's original pilot was eerily prophetic. It centered on a
plot by bin Laden's al-Qaeda (ominous Arabic music) to blow up Harrods department
store in London during the Christmas season--the height of shopping and
Christianity. The agents cultivate a contact by tricking him with sophisticated
computer imaging and by saving his family with fake passports, and they disarm
the bomb with seconds to spare (celebratory, Olympics-style music). Rather than
take credit for prescience, CBS pulled the episode and aired a revised version
weeks later without naming either bin Laden or Harrods. For the October premiere,
the network ran an episode in which the agents foil a plot by Cuban renegades to
kill Fidel Castro--probably as big a piece of make-believe about the CIA as you
can get.

The CIA never counted on Alias to set any records straight. The show's
creator, J.J. Abrams, who also created the teen hit Felicity, has said
from the beginning that Alias would be "a comic book come to life." "Doing
a show like The Agency would be, for me, a burden I wouldn't know how to
deal with," Abrams told EW after September 11. "I respect them for trying.
I just don't know how I would do it." Since the show's start-up in late
September, the only changes Abrams's team have felt obliged to make are getting
rid of a bomb and renaming the World Trade Organization lest viewers be
retraumatized by the words "World Trade."

His heroine, Sydney Bristow (played by Jennifer Garner), takes no
prisoners--and no crap from men. She juggles her various lives with finesse: as
an ordinary graduate student who pretends to work full-time for a bank and as a
double agent working for the CIA while pretending to work for a renegade
organization called SD-6, whose Machiavellian leaders had her fiancé
killed and also employ her chilly father (who is, it turns out, also a double
agent). She wears amazing wigs and outfits and struts across the globe foiling
complicated international plots; luckily, each week she has some fantastic new
gadget, and she speaks the language of every new place fluently and with no
detectable accent. The dangers, too, are comic-book--in one episode, Sydney
dismantles a nuclear weapon just in the nick of time; in another, she must
memorize a 500-year-old binary code before it self-destructs--and so is the look.

Cannily ripping off La Femme Nikita, Run Lola Run, and
Charlie's Angels, Alias offers a pleasurable, familiar fantasy
world. In that world, the CIA is knowing, glamorous, and great at burrowing
undercover. In that world, cool women serve the CIA by kicking bad-guy butt. It's
a welcome relief from the world we actually live in and stakes no claim on it.

At a time when it is especially important to understand what is and isn't
working in the CIA, it's been a shock to see entertainment television scurrying
off in the opposite direction. The impulse to recycle old spy fantasies rather
than confront darker, harder realities has seemed irresponsible--and as the
networks may already be starting to recognize, it may not even be what audiences
want. But it's had one important benefit: In the face of competing images on the
news, and in the shadows of the biggest intelligence failure in American history,
it's been much less likely, at least, that anyone could mistake the new CIA
entertainment shows for docudrama. There's something to applaud when The
appears no less make-believe than Alias, when the fantasy CIAs
are clearly marked as fantasies, when lies cannot so easily pose as truths.